50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs: From ‘Bonito’ to ‘Despacito’ – Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs

Rolling Stone chronicles Latin America’s most influential pop songs, from the 1950s to now

50 greatest latin pop songs

With Latin pop getting heightened visibility in the American mainstream this year, it’s time we call for a history lesson. This summer “Latino Gang” Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin nabbed the Number One spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with their Latin trap hit, “I Like It.” But in sampling the Tony Pabon and Manny Rodriguez-penned single, “I Like It Like That,” this win marks the third time the boogaloo song has cycled through the United States pop chart: first by Pete Rodríguez, whose original recording hit Number 25 in 1967; then again by Tito Puente, Sheila E. and the Blackout All-Stars supergroup in 1996.

By reading Anglophone music media, one might think Latin pop’s ubiquity in the United States is a sudden one – but it’s hardly as recent a phenomenon as new listeners believe. From the Cuban mambo craze of the 1950s to the global virality of “Despacito,” Latin American music has been a fixture of popular music around the world so long as it’s been recorded. Just ask Romeo Santos and the Bronx-based bachata group Aventura, whose 2002 single “Obsesión” scored Number Ones across France, Italy and Germany before the United States caught on.

Encompassing everything from salsa to rock en español, Latin pop is a constantly evolving genre colored by the traditions, migrations and innovations of Latinx people in spite of all odds. Some of the most famous Latin pop songs have survived military dictatorships, war, famine and natural disasters – and they still hold up in spite of passing trends. Rolling Stone contributors selected 50 of the most influential songs in Latin pop history, ranked in chronological order.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Benny Moré, “Bonito y Sabroso” (1951)

“Bonito y Sabroso,” the most dynamic of the songs recorded by Cuban mambo masters Pérez Prado and Benny Moré, serves as a guidepost to the genre’s Golden Age. Recorded with the Rafael de Paz Orchestra in Mexico City, the music doesn’t move so much as it glides, with a syncopated swing that’s puro Cubano. Accentuated with booming Afro-Latin percussion and horn-heavy American big band exoticism, the track’s legacy nevertheless hinges on Moré’s sultry and seductive tenor. Moré, along with fellow Cuban icons La Lupe and Pacho Alonso, was signed to RCA subsidiary label Discuba in 1956. But after the 1959 communist revolution, Fidel Castro nationalized the Cuban music industry, forcing the American-owned label to relocate to Miami, Florida. Unlike many of his big band contemporaries, Moré refused to leave his home in Cuba, and died due to complications from liver failure in 1963. In 1999 he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, and immortalized in the 2006 film El Benny. Radiating cool like an ice block in the wind, Moré created the standard by which all future Latin pop Lotharios were judged. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Ritchie Valens “La Bamba” (1958)

There’s a lot of history packed in this two-minute song: “La Bamba” is a traditional Mexican wedding song, performed in the regional son jarocho musical style of Veracruz. While the earliest official recording of the song dates back to 1939, it was Ritchie Valens’ 1958 adaptation that forever immortalized “La Bamba” in rock history. Valens’ rendition – initially recorded as a B-side to his first-ever hit, “Donna” – became a U.S. Top 40 success and placed in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list (and was the only non-English-language song to have ranked). Valens successfully merged the worlds of Latin American music and American rock in his take, adopting a California surf vibe while keeping the Spanish-language lyrics intact. Although he was initially reluctant to blend rock elements with the original folk standard, his formula would later influence bands from the rock en español explosion of the Eighties and Nineties. The song solidified Valens as a pioneer in the Chicano and Latin rock movement, making him one of the first Latin artists to successfully cross over into Top 40 territory. His short-lived career, however, came to an untimely end when the 17-year-old Valens, alongside Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson, died in a plane crash in 1959. East L.A. rockers Los Lobos later revamped “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic of the same name – and it became the Number One song in the U.S. and U.K. that year. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, “Mas Que Nada” (1966)

Bandleader Sérgio Mendes, the godfather of bossa nova, was Brazil’s most celebrated artist in the Sixties. His most popular recording, “Mas Que Nada,” was originally penned and performed by singer-guitarist Jorge Ben, a former member of Mendes’ band. According to Ruy Castro’s 1990 book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, Ben went out for a haircut before a show in Los Angeles and, under America’s pervasive Jim Crow laws, the Afro-Brazilian was turned away. It was then that Ben allegedly dropped off the tour and bought a one-way ticket back to South America – his song, however, remained with Mendes. That same year a military junta took over Brazil, employing a fierce nationalism and anti-imperialism that eschewed all Western cultural influence. It was then that Mendes made a home in the United States where, with the help of Herb Alpert and his home label A&M Records, Mendes would assemble a band of Americans and Brazilian exiles called Brasil ’66. In their rendition of “Mas Que Nada,” Ben’s throaty wails are replaced by the discreet chirps of Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel, trailing after a brisk samba rhythm. Their debut record, Herb Alpert Presents: Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66, would hit gold in the United States and ascend to the Top Ten of the Billboard 200. Meanwhile in Brazil, the anti-authoritarian, countercultural movement known as Tropicália was beginning to take shape, leaving the apolitical bossa nova era in the dust. The song remains a staple of Brazilian music history to this day. Mendes later re-recorded his hit in 2006 with the Black Eyed Peas, but the 1966 version only gets better with age. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Santana, “Oye Como Va” (1970)

Originally written as a breezy Latin jazz cut by mambo legend Tito Puente in 1963, “Oye Como Va” saw then-rising rock act Santana create a new dimension in the burgeoning Latin rock sound. In their rendition, Santana go electric, replacing Puente’s signature horn section with the power combo of organist Gregg Rolie and guitar god Carlos Santana. Their remake – released as the second single off the band’s 1970 album, Abraxas, one of the greatest Latin rock albums of all time – passed with flying colors, reaching Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. With “Oye Como Va,” Santana successfully set the stage for the Seventies salsa movement and the wider Latin music explosion. Like Dylan did for Hendrix, Puente ceded his most famous song to Santana: “Beautiful Santana,” says Puente during the intro to “Oye Como Va,” on his 1999 live album, Mambo Birdland. “[Carlos Santana] put our music, Latin rock, around the world, man. And I’d like to thank him publicly ’cause he recorded the tune and he gave me credit as the composer of the tune. So since that day, all we play is Santana music.” J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Héctor Lavoe, “El Periódico de Ayer” (1976)

Memorialized by Marc Anthony in the 2006 biopic, El Cantante, Puerto Rican vocalist Héctor Lavoe was a real-life superhero of salsa, a diamond in the rough who could channel the full range of human emotions in a single fleeting note. In 1967, Lavoe first met salsa musician and bandleader Willie Colón in New York City, where the two began collaborating under the legendary Fania Records label. Yet more money translated to more problems for Lavoe, as he rapidly buckled under the influence of heroin and cocaine, and eventually died of complications from AIDS. While fans most fondly recall his jubilant performances of smash hits “Mi Gente,” or the Rubén Blades-authored “El Cantante,” Lavoe’s timeless recording of the Tite Curet Alonso original, “El Periódico de Ayer,” possessed a gravity unmatched by any salsa song to this day. “Tu amor es un periódico de ayer/Que nadie mas procura ya leer,” sings Lavoe, “Your love is yesterday’s news/That nobody tries to read.” Performed unconventionally in a minor key, Lavoe’s ultimate diss track only grows more devastating with time, as its upbeat tropical verve gives way to a sprawling orchestral meditation. When the strings kick in, so do the waterworks. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Rubén Blades and Willie Colón, “Plástico” (1978)

Salsa’s confrontational spirit is fully embodied within “Plástico.” Yet the song begins not with timbales or tumbadora, but with the sound of generic disco. Without notice, the rumble of Latin soul washes away the faux 4/4, revealing a pan-American call to arms in a pork-pie hat. Panamanian singer-songwriter Blades and his frequent collaborator Willie Colón deliver a fiery mocking of the white man’s assimilation, where “good” immigrants prove their worth by devoting their lives to self-absorption and materialism. The song is most renowned for its acerbic lyrics yet it’s the gentle refrain “Se ven las caras pero nunca el corazón” (“You can see the faces but never the heart”) that bites hardest. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Juan Gabriel, “Querida” (1984)

The signature song of Latin music’s greatest melodramatist, “Querida” finds Juan Gabriel at his most extra: Vulnerable yet masculine, flamboyant but crude. Juanga masterfully melds Sinatra-style orchestral pop with a Beatles-approved backbeat into a fiery lament of desperation. Repeated cries of “dime cuándo tú vas a volver” (“tell me when you’ll return”) add a level of paranoia to the saga of this lovestruck Romeo in a transcendent finale. Categorized as Mexico’s answer to Prince, Elvis, and even Elton John, one spin of “Querida” shows that Juan Gabriel was in a class all his own. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Rocío Dúrcal, “Amor Eterno” (1984)

The late great Juan Gabriel penned one of the most ardent love letters of all time in “Amor Eterno,” a traditional ranchera song he dedicated to his deceased mother. A Spanish-born chanteuse with a Mexican heart, Dúrcal morphed this emotional ballad into a timeless eulogy. While the saddest balada romántica — like, ever — is still performed by mariachis at funerals, it also serves as an anthemic Mother’s Day hymn throughout Mexico and beyond. Dúrcal’s 1984 studio album, Canta a Juan Gabriel: Volumen Seis, ranked at number two on Billboard Latin Pop Albums chart the following year, and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Latin Pop Album — a first for a ranchera album performed by a female soloist. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Daniela Romo, “Yo No Te Pido la Luna” (1984)

An instant and enduring anthem for the gay Latinx community, “Yo No Te Pido la Luna” is as much about the moon as “Heart of Glass” is about cardiovascular health. This is a song about grabbing the night by the hand and squeezing for dear mercy because the sun may not come out tomorrow. The track’s legacy has only grown since its release, with queer artists like Javiera Mena and Alex Anwandter citing it as a direct influence. Indeed, an entire generation of Latinx electro-pop artists can trace their sonic DNA back to Romo’s glittering power-ballad. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Los Tigres del Norte, “La Jaula de Oro” (1984)

Los Tigres del Norte are the preeminent norteño band, specializing in the chronicles of valiant heroes and ruthless antiheroes. At the heart of “La Jaula de Oro,” however, is the aura of fear. Fear that the narrator’s children have abandoned the heritage of their father’s native Mexico out of shame. Fear that he’s become a slave to money. Fear to even leave his home because he could be deported at any moment, turning his figurative golden cage into a literal prison. There’s no heroism, optimism, or salvation, only uncertainty – which is the scariest feeling of all. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, “Conga” (1985)

The story of this hit begins in 1984, a year before its official release. It was then when Miami Sound Machine, led by the fiery Gloria Estefan, released Eyes of Innocence, the band’s eighth studio album and their first English-language full-length. The album’s lead single, “Dr. Beat,” soon caught fire in Europe, where it charted across the continent. While the song ultimately failed in the U.S., its international success piqued the attention of American labels, who moved quickly to capitalize on the momentum. Miami Sound Machine returned stronger one year later with Primitive Love, the act’s second English-language record. “Conga,” its lead single, became a worldwide hit, peaking at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching multi-platinum status in the U.S. The song’s crossover appeal is largely due to its Americanized take on Cuban conga music; digestible English-language lyrics; an irresistible melody sanitized by heavy Eighties synths and drum machines; and a welcoming message to the international dance floor: “Don’t you worry if you can’t dance/Let the music move your feet.” This winning formula became Miami Sound Machine’s and Estefan’s signature sound and helped establish traditional Latin rhythms as part of the wider American pop canon. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Ana Gabriel, “Ay Amor” (1987)

As the lead single off Ana Gabriel’s third artist album, Pecado Original, “Ay Amor” catapulted the Mexican singer-songwriter from rising local act to global artist. Following her breakthrough performance of the song at the 1987 OTI Festival, an Ibero-American spinoff of Eurovision, “Ay Amor” topped the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart in January 1988; and it would subsequently spend 14 consecutive weeks at Number One. “Ay Amor,” an opulent, heartbreaking power ballad, has also come to define Gabriel’s performance and songwriting style: powerful lyrics amplified by her raspy, operatic vocals. As her biggest track to date and one of her signature songs, “Ay Amor” solidified Gabriel’s place among the greats. She currently stands as the highest-ranking female artist on Billboard‘s male-dominated Greatest of All Time Hot Latin Songs Artists list, opening the doors for future female pop titans like Shakira and Selena J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Caifanes, “La Negra Tomasa” (1988)

Amidst the evolution of rock en español in the Eighties and Nineties, Caifanes crafted an instantly recognizable sound with a goth-pop sensibility that echoed that of the Cure. So when the purveyors of New Wave a la mexicana delivered their hit cover of “La Negra Tomasa” – originally written by Cuban composer Guillermo Rodriguez Fiffe in the Thirties – it was a far-fetched rendition that would resuscitate Mexican rock. One might argue that the possibilities for Latin rock fusion began with their remake – just listen to Saúl Hernández’s haunted, spine-chilling wails against the vampiric cumbia backdrop. It’s simply spellbinding. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Luis Miguel, “La Incondicional” (1988)

Tu, intensamente tu,” (“You, intensely, you,”) murmurs Luis Miguel over a yearnful, slow-burning backdrop that could easily inspire the biggest tearjerking session any listener can handle. A former child protégé gone big-haired dance-pop heartthrob, Miguel pivoted to lovesick crooner in the late Eighties. He resurrected the Latin American balada in “La Incondicional,” and passionately channeled the spirit of Seventies-era crooners like José José and Camilo Sesto. In its accompanying video, the golden-voiced gallant departs from his darling love as he’s drafted to war. If this won’t make any love skeptic grovel at the feet of Aphrodite, then who knows what will? I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Timbiriche, “Tu y Yo Somos Uno Mismo” (1988)

Never mind the tepid Kidz Bop of Menudo – Mexico’s Timbiriche was the baddest group of child stars in the Eighties. Mentored by Spanish new wave singer Miguel Bosé, the gang of six was a mixed-gender cornucopia of musical prodigies that brought forth pop royals like Paulina Rubio, Thalía and many more. In their biggest hit, “Tu y Yo Somos Uno Mismo” (“You and I Are One”), pretty boy Diego Schoening takes center stage, beckoning a ghosted lover back to his side. A portrait of the band at the top of their game – at least before the departure of most its original members – their 1988 double album Timbiriche VIII + IX introduced a gutsy pop-rock group that was not afraid of growing up. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Gloria Trevi, “Dr. Psiquiatra” (1989)

Shock-pop bombshell Gloria Trevi went full Rebel Girl after her controversial televised debut of “Dr. Psiquiatra” on Mexican variety show Siempre en Domingo. The song that made Ms. Treviño a superstar follows a girl who is taken to the asylum and put under the care of an older man who ogles at her legs. This risqué song, as well as her headbanging single “Pelo Suelto,” heralded the arrival of a different kind of Mexican pop star, à la Madonna wild, outspoken, but utterly charming – during a time when female singers were expected to be wholesome like Lucerito, or elegant like Daniela Romo. But more troubling than her songs was her relationship to then-manager Sergio Andrade, who was discovered to have led a teenage sex abuse cult disguised as a talent school for girls. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Kaoma, “Lambada” (1989)

The catalyst for a global dance craze in the late Eighties, Kaoma’s “Lambada” caught fire with the American public in a way unseen until the Macarena. But its massive success proved to be a liability for its French producers, who were exposed (and sued) for blatantly ripping off “Llorando Se Fue,” originally composed and performed by Bolivian Andean group Los Kjarkas. Its impact was still undeniable, with the song serving as the basis for hits across the world from Japan to Turkey – not to mention Jennifer Lopez’s top five smash “Get On the Floor.” (It even inspired and soundtracked its own movie, the tone-deaf 1990 flop The Forbidden Dance.) Yet as the “forbidden dance” died and its covers faded from the charts, “Lambada” remains an essential track. After all, how many other novelty songs slap this hard? A.C.